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‘We Need Pleasure to Survive’

The subject line of an email sent by my own fair paper last week read: “For You: Even a Little Alcohol Can Harm Your Health.” First of all: For me? Rude. But I did read the linked article — reported by the health writer Dana Smith, who begins her piece, delightfully, with “sorry to be a buzz-kill” — an overview of the current research on alcohol consumption. To be clear, the experts queried didn’t suggest fully abstaining, but the ultimate takeaway was: “Drink less, live longer.” This comes on the heels of learning that my gas stove may be killing me, I’m eating the wrong carbs and processed meat shouldn’t be “a regular habit.”

After sitting with all these health warnings, it seems to me that the guidance around all sorts of things feels a bit draconian.

Not because I question the science or the value of knowing the potential risks. Not because I think it’s propaganda for Big Boredom. But because if you’re a certain kind of person, you take these warnings to heart, and it can be hard not to feel obligated to incorporate them into your routine. And because what seems less discussed is the role — maybe even the necessity — that having some simple pleasures plays in our lives.

For instance, does the joy we get from two glasses of wine, over dinner with friends, offset the physiological drawbacks in any way? (And if we’re keeping it real, parents, especially, might want a glass of wine.) Does the pleasure from a rich meal, one you lovingly prepared for your family, nourish your soul even if it raises your cholesterol? My editor confesses to a bro-y penchant for the occasional cigar. I have a cigarette or two a year — don’t tell my mom.

While I’m certainly not suggesting that we all start binge drinking daily, eating hot dogs at every meal and breathing deeply over gas ranges, I do wonder what’s lost if we don’t let go of our superegos from time to time in pursuit of perfect health and potential longevity.

I decided to get in touch with academics who study pleasure and happiness to see what their research indicates. They didn’t mince words. “We need pleasure to survive,” said Morten Kringelbach, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford who’s also the director of the Center for Eudaimonia and Human Flourishing. His research over the past few decades, he said, has been in identifying the “machinery of the brain that makes you want something.”

He described that machinery as a choreography of “wanting, liking and satiety.” For example, he said that while he was talking to me, he really wanted to have an espresso. His brain was fixated on the idea of the coffee and his future enjoyment of it. Once he could pop out of the room and drink an espresso, he’d be satisfied and could go about his day. Or, as he put it: “You have this moment of orgasmic pleasure, then at some point you can do other things.”

According to Kringelbach, life has a cycle: “You need to be able to vary your pleasures, not necessarily to moderate them. You need different pleasures at different times.” He often cites a line from the novella “Babette’s Feast,” which describes the rapturous emotions that a group of ascetics has after eating a single indulgent meal:

We get in trouble as humans, Kringelbach said, if we have no pleasure — or too much. And the reduced ability or inability to experience pleasure is associated with several psychological maladies. He used caffeine dependence to explain: If you become addicted to coffee and don’t get the hit anymore, even when you drink it, and then you spend all your time thinking about coffee (or alcohol or anything else), to the detriment of a full life, you are in a “maladaptive loop,” he said.

That idea of a full life, a flourishing life, is much of what Kringelbach studies. He defines eudaimonia as meaningful pleasure. Drinking, for example, isn’t necessary for human bonding or thriving, and drinking alone isn’t meaningful. And yes, excessive drinking is harmful. But for some people, drinking can facilitate social connection and lower social anxiety. As an example, Kringelbach told me about a gathering called Pub Choir, a massive group singalong where strangers get together to learn a three-part harmony that is “equal parts music, comedy and beer.”

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of “The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want,” agreed that there can be benefits to substances that aren’t strictly healthy by every metric if they create bursts of positive emotion. “Happy people feel more frequent bursts of positive emotions,” she said, and it’s worth seeking out these pleasures “as long as they don’t have long-term harm.”

I also wanted to know, if we’re otherwise reasonably healthy, how much additional longevity any individual can really expect to get out of going from four pieces of bacon a week to two. I asked Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel — the vice provost for global initiatives and a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania — if we can really know how much these tweaks in behavior matter.

He told me that beyond what he calls “the six commandments of wellness” — eat a good diet (which, from what we can tell, is a Mediterranean diet), exercise (“not training for a marathon, get out and get your heart rate up”), no smoking, wear a seatbelt, sleep and socialize — we don’t really know specifics on an individual level. For example, he might do fine on seven hours of sleep a night, while his partner might need eight for optimal health.

Though Emanuel pushed back on the framing of my query (“I don’t like to put it in the context of pleasure” or hedonism, he told me), he does believe that moderation is a good principle. If moderate drinking helps you live what you consider to be a full life, that is worth considering as you decide how to live. A case in point, perhaps: Sister André, a French nun who died this month at the age of 118, said she had a bit of wine and chocolate every day.

“This is a debate I have had for years with my brother,” Emanuel said. “Really, he does all sorts of crazy stuff. When he went vegan — no nightshades, none of this, none of that — how much is it going to add to your life? A few months?” If it is adding time, he said, “It’s adding time to the end of your life, the added month you get is not today.”

There are some days when I just want — need — a bacon, egg and cheese on a roll. There’s no substitute for this specific pleasure, and despite knowing that processed meat isn’t good for me, the satiety I will feel after eating it, fresh from a bodega’s griddle, is worth maybe, potentially shaving off a few weeks when I’m 90, should I be lucky enough to make it there. I’ll be grateful if I do, but I won’t be happier knowing that I denied myself a guaranteed joy at 40.


Want More?

  • In a classic 2014 essay in The Atlantic, Emanuel explains “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” Despite the provocative title, he isn’t arguing that he wants to be euthanized at 75. Instead:

  • In The Times, the psychologist Adam Grant described the dominant emotion of 2021 as “languishing,” which is “a sense of stagnation and emptiness.” The opposite of languishing, Dani Blum explains, is flourishing, which is a “lofty combination of physical, mental and emotional fitness.”

  • In Psychology Today in 2021, Marianna Pogosyan interviewed Kringelbach about “the new neuroscience of pleasure.”


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